Your race recovery starts as soon as you cross the finish line. – By Bradley Stulberg
For many runners with big spring races on their calendars, the past few months have been governed by detailed training plans dictating when to run, when to rest, how to stretch and what to eat. The minutes, hours and days after the event are a lot less defined. Yet this transition period is critical, especially if you raced a half or a full marathon. ‘What you do to recover after a race plays a big role in how you will perform at the next one,’ says Corey Hart, a research physiologist. Here’s what is happening inside your body and mind following a race, and the steps you can take to bounce back strong.
0-24 hours afterwards
Body: Refuel with a high-carb drink containing a small amount of protein. ‘Muscles are most permeable to energy uptake in the 30 minutes following a hard effort,’ says Hart. For the next 23 hours, your priority is muscle repair – and that means protein. Hart recommends frequent snacks that are high in carbs but also contain 25-30g of protein.
Light foam rolling and compression clothing improve blood flow to remove toxins from muscle. Otherwise, it’s generally best to ‘relax – let the body initiate its natural recovery processes,’ says Hart. Many runners literally ‘run around’ recovering, which is counterproductive.
Mind: ‘Celebrate!’ advises sports psychologist Kristin Keim. Many runners have type-A tendencies, always looking for the next big challenge. Keim says pausing to reward yourself and reflect on your accomplishment is important. If you find yourself struggling to sit still, let alone sleep, don’t worry.
According to Michael Joyner, a US physiologist, a number of factors – from gastrointestinal issues to elevated neurochemicals – can interfere with sleep. When you do finally feel drowsy, don’t cut yourself short. Sleep is vital to recovery, so don’t be afraid to hit the snooze button.
24-72 hours afterwards
Body: Now is the time to try light exercise. Active recovery expedites the body’s natural repair process by delivering more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. Just keep it easy – go for a walk.
Continue to wear compression clothing, and if you get a massage, make sure your therapist goes easy on the pressure. ‘You want to let your muscles heal, and deep-tissue massage can cause muscle damage,’ says Hart.
Popping ibuprofen might be tempting, but unless you sustained an acute injury, many experts advise against it. ‘The inflammatory response is signaling recovery and that’s not something we want to mask,’ says Hart.
Mind: The immediate post-race high is wearing off, but dopamine and serotonin levels are still elevated. ‘Simply moving past the race is tough,’ says Keim. So don’t feel bad about the urge to write a race report and post pictures on social media.
Even after a disappointing race, Doug MacLean, a running and triathlon coach, encourages runners to fully process the event rather than trying to block out negative feelings. ‘It’s not until we internalise what happened at a more subconscious level that we can analyse what went wrong, make adjustments and truly release from the past,’ he says.
3-7 days afterwards
Body: Although you may be getting anxious about not training, fatigue is probably pulling you to the couch. This is especially true for runners who raced longer distances or trained hard for an extended period. Hart calls this ‘central system fatigue’. ‘While training, you are constantly suppressing fatigue – or ignoring it – which can throw your hormonal profile out of whack,’ he says. When your body lets its guard down a few days after the event, all the built-up fatigue sets in. ‘Do not fight this fatigue,’ says Hart. Instead, stick to light active recovery and remember that the priority is to rest so your body can return to hormonal balance.
Mind: Enter, for some, the post-race blues. ‘Stimulating neurochemicals are declining and you are reintegrating into everyday life,’ says Keim. An ensuing rut can be compounded by the fact that most runners’ antidepressant of choice – a hard workout – isn’t an option. Keim urges runners to ‘maintain their identity as athletes’. To do this, analyse your race, think about goals for next year and, perhaps most important, reframe rest as a key part of your training plan. Viewing rest as something you are choosing to do to improve as a runner means you are less likely to feel you’re neglecting the athletic part of yourself.
7-21 days afterwards
Body: Your muscular and hormonal systems are still returning to baseline, so this is a good time to slowly introduce some intensity into workouts. ‘The main thing to remember is that you can’t train if you are injured,’ says Joyner. So err on the side of doing too little rather than too much, and ‘focus on reading your body and backing off if soreness and fatigue don’t improve’.
Joyner and Hart agree that cross-training is a good low-risk approach. Add intensity into other sports (a hard hike or swim). By the end of this period, your central and muscular systems should be in tune and you can ease back into running.
Mind: You probably will feel a healthy urge to start running again. Now is a great time to develop a new set of goals. This might mean running faster, running farther, taking running more seriously or, perhaps, taking running less seriously. But if you are feeling burned out and the thought of running evokes dread, that’s OK, too, says Keim.
There is no rush to get back into things, and if the thought of structured training still does not appeal, you can run casually for general health, stress relief and social fun. ‘You shouldn’t have to search for the motivation to train hard,’ says Keim. ‘You’ll know if and when it comes back.’